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John Locke's Theory of Empiricism

John Locke, while most well known for his political ideology, has also made significant contributions to philosophy through his theory of empiricism.

The basic idea of this theory is that human knowledge stems solely from experience, and that we are born with essentially empty minds that are filled once we begin to perceive the world around us. The Blank Slate Analogy The phrase generally used to summarize Locke’s theory is “tabula est rasa,” or “the slate is clean.” This refers to his assertion that the origin of our thoughts is not innate, but that it is through observations of our surroundings and our reflections on these observations. The “blank slate” analogy illustrates his view that we are born with no instinctive ideas whatsoever, and that our minds are consequently filled as we accumulate various experiences in life. Locke’s empiricism focuses on the origin of ideas, rather than the other branch of empiricism, which concentrates on justification of knowledge and beliefs. There are subtle differences between the two, namely that the second deduces that what we know, we get from our experiences with the world, while the first is concerned with how ideas originate. However, both branches share the common theme that experience and sense perception are the main proponents of knowledge. This contrasts with the some of the ideas behind rationalism, another philosophical theory that maintains that knowledge about the world can be acquired through other means besides just sense experience. The rationalist concept of knowledge gained a priori, or before experience, disagrees with the empiricist claims that knowledge only exists a posteriori, or coming from experience. Rationalists often believe that people are capable of formulating ideas solely using reason by itself. For example, a rationalist might claim that mathematical proofs were developed using only reason, while an empiricist like Locke would say that the proofs were resulting from a combination of experiences (both external and internal). This concept of external versus internal experience will be discussed in the next section. Theoretical Ideas in Locke’s Model Several counterarguments have been raised against Locke’s theory, the first of which refers to the development of theoretical ideas like math and science. Critics claim that according to Locke’s theory, a person can’t have a conception of things (like numbers, for example) without first having a direct perception of them. Locke’s main defense against this argument is that experience not only includes external sense perception, but it also encompasses introspection and reflection on these perceptions. This type of

internal experience is what allows us to develop more abstract ideas. According to Locke, complex ideas can be always be traced back to experience. It follows that more complex ideas would require more layers of experience in order to be developed, but they ultimately should be capable of being traced back to external experience. Locke’s inclusion of internal experience, or reflection, is both effective and necessary. It accounts for various theoretical and abstract ideas that could obviously not have been developed through sense perception alone. Reflection, according to his theory, appears to be general and accounts for a large number of gaps between ideas and the direct, external experiences that led up to them. Since each person has different reflections that take place in independent minds, it is impossible to clearly define the process of reflection. This lack of clarity might be viewed as a flaw in Locke’s reasoning, but the generality of reflection allows it a flexibility in connecting ideas that ultimately strengthens Locke’s empiricism. His theory could be stronger, however, if reflection and introspection were more clearly defined so as to account for critics’ skepticism. The Universal Assent Counterargument Another argument against Locke’s empiricist theory is the concept of universal assent to an idea. This asserts that there are certain ideas that are shared throughout humanity due to their innate nature. One common example of a universal, shared idea is belief in God. Those who disagree with Locke declare that humanity shares an inherent feeling that God should be worshipped. However, there are obvious flaws in this argument because of people’s differing conceptions of God and religion. Locke defends his theory on these grounds, adding that there is no proof of an innate desire to worship God since we cannot even agree that God exists. Aside from this one example, Locke develops a firm platform against this idea. Locke’s main defenses against universal assent can be categorized into two arguments: first, just because an idea is shared does not mean it is inherently innate; and second, no ideas can be classified as purely universal. The first defense is effective because it not only refutes the counterargument, but it also ends in support of Locke’s theory. The existence of universal assent to an idea does not necessarily need to be attributed to innate ideas from birth; instead, it can be due to common experiences shared by humanity. The second defense is slightly more complex than the first, but it still effectively explains how completely universal ideas do not exist. Locke first chooses to focus on the ideas

and understanding of children. Many of the common examples of universal assent (such as ethics, ability to distinguish between good and evil, or mathematical concepts) cannot always be understood by children. For instance, it is commonly found that children must learn how to share or why stealing is wrong. If they possessed an innate ethical knowledge, then they would not need to be taught these things. Moreover, children wouldn’t even need punishment to limit bad behavior since they would already understand that it was morally wrong. Evidence like this encourages the claim that universal ideas do not exist. Supporters of the concept of universal assent often attempt to counter these arguments by claiming that sometimes innate ideas require an acquisition of reasoning abilities. This development of reasoning takes place over a period of time, so that as children, people have not yet come to the use of reason necessary to comprehend the innate ideas. Conclusion Overall, Locke’s theory is effective in describing that the origin of ideas is from experience as well as in anticipating and refuting opposing claims concerning theoretical ideas and universal assent.


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Empiricism is the theory that the origin of all knowledge is sense experience. It emphasizes the role of experience and evidence, especially sensory perception, in the formation of ideas, and argues that the only knowledge humans can have is a posteriori (i.e. based on experience). Most empiricists also discount the notion of innate ideas or innatism (the idea that the mind is born with ideas or knowledge and is not a "blank slate" at birth). In order to build a more complex body of knowledge from these direct observations, induction or inductive reasoning (making generalizations based on individual instances) must be used. This kind of knowledge is therefore also known as indirect empirical knowledge. Empiricism is contrasted with Rationalism, the theory that the mind may apprehend some truths directly, without requiring the medium of the senses. The term "empiricism" has a dual etymology, stemming both from the Greek word for "experience" and from the more specific classical Greek and Roman usage of "empiric", referring to a physician whose skill derives from practical experience as opposed to instruction in theory (this was it's first usage). The term "empirical" (rather than "empiricism") also refers to the method of observation and experiment used in the natural and social sciences. It is a fundamental requirement of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world, rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition or revelation. Hence, science is considered to be methodologically empirical in nature.

History of Empiricism

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The concept of a "tabula rasa" (or "clean slate") had been developed as early as the 11th Century by the Persian philosopher Avicenna, who further argued that knowledge is attained through empirical familiarity with objects in this world, from which one abstracts universal concepts, which can then be further developed through a syllogistic method of reasoning. The 12th Century Arabic philosopher Abubacer (or Ibn Tufail: 1105 - 1185) demonstrated the theory of tabula rasa as a thought experiment in which the mind of a feral child develops from a clean slate to that of an adult, in complete isolation from society on a desert island, through experience alone. Sir Francis Bacon can be considered an early Empiricist, through his popularization of an inductive methodology for scientific inquiry, which has since become known as the scientific method. In the 17th and 18th Century, the members of the British Empiricism school John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume were the primary exponents of Empiricism. They vigorously defended Empiricism against the Rationalism of Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza.

The doctrine of Empiricism was first explicitly formulated by the British philosopher John Locke in the late 17th Century. Locke argued in his "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" of 1690 that the mind is a tabula rasa on which experiences leave their marks, and therefore denied that humans have innate ideas or that anything is knowable without reference to experience. However, he also held that some knowledge (e.g. knowledge of God's existence) could be arrived at through intuition and reasoning alone. The Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley, concerned that Locke's view opened a door that could lead to eventual Atheism, put forth in his "Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge" of 1710 a different, very extreme form of Empiricism in which things only exist either as a result of their being perceived, or by virtue of the fact that they are an entity doing the perceiving. He argued that the continued existence of things results from the perception of God, regardless of whether there are humans around or not, and any order humans may see in nature is effectively just the handwriting of God. Berkeley's approach to Empiricism would later come to be called Subjective Idealism. The Scottish philosopher David Hume brought to the Empiricist viewpoint an extreme Skepticism. He argued that all of human knowledge can be divided into two categories: relations of ideas (e.g. propositions involving some contingent observation of the world, such as "the sun rises in the East") and matters of fact (e.g. mathematical and logical propositions), and that ideas are derived from our "impressions" or sensations. In the face of this, he argued that even the most basic beliefs about the natural world, or even in the existence of the self, cannot be conclusively established by reason, but we accept them anyway because of their basis in instinct and custom. John Stuart Mill, in the mid-19th Century, took Hume and Berkeley's reasoning a step further in maintaining that inductive reasoning is necessary for all meaningful knowledge (including mathematics), and that matter is merely the "permanent possibility of sensation" as he put it. This is an extreme form of Empiricism known as Phenomenalism (the the view that physical objects, properties and events are completely reducible to mental objects, properties and events). In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, several forms of Pragmatism arose, which attempted to integrate the apparently mutually-exclusive insights of Empiricism (experience-based thinking) and Rationalism (concept-based thinking). C. S. Peirce and William James (who coined the term "radical empiricism" to describe an offshoot of his form of Pragmatism) were particularly important in this endeavour. The next step in the development of Empiricism was Logical Empiricism (or Logical Positivism), an early 20th Century attempt to synthesize the essential ideas of British Empiricism (a strong emphasis on sensory experience as the basis for knowledge) with certain insights from mathematical logic that had been developed by Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. This resulted in a kind of extreme Empiricism which held that any genuinely synthetic assertion must be reducible to an ultimate assertion (or set of ultimate assertions) which expresses direct observations or perceptions.

When it comes to epistemological questions, the two primary schools of thought are the empiricist school and the rationalist schools.
The empiricists are well represented by
• • •

John Locke (British, 1632-1704) George Berkeley (Irish, 1685-1753) David Hume (Scotch, 1711, 1776))

The rationalists are represented by
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René Descartes (French, 1596-1650) Benedictus de Spinoza (Dutch, 1632-1677) Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (German, 1646-1716)

In this course we are going to focus primarily on the philosophers in the empiricist tradition, though someone in class may choose to do their research project on René Descartes or one of the other rationalists. We will be looking first at some of the main themes in John Locke's philosophy, then more briefly at the work of George Berkeley and David Hume. Understanding what some of the questions were that these three thinkers addressed is a necessary prerequisite to understanding the work of one of the greatest and most influential thinkers of the past two millennia, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant's work, as we will see, flows directly out of the turbulent confluence of these two opposing (rationalist and empiricist) philosophical traditions. And out of Kant's thought flows that of Arthur Schopenhauer (and others).

Empiricism is the philosophical concept that experience, which is based on observation and experimentation, is the source of knowledge. According to empiricism, only the information that a person gathers with his or her senses should be used to make decisions, without regard to reason or to either religious or political teachings. Empiricism gained credibility with the rise of experimental science during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it continues to be studied by many scientists today. Empiricists have included English philosopher John Locke (1632– 1704), who asserted that there is no such thing as innate (having at birth) ideas— that the mind is born blank and all knowledge is derived from human experience. Another prominent empiricist, Irish clergyman George Berkeley (1685–1753), believed that nothing exists except through an individual's own perceptions, and that the mind of God makes possible the apparent existence of material objects. Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) expanded empiricism to the extreme of skepticism, asserting that human knowledge is restricted to the experience of ideas and impressions. Therefore it is impossible to state truth with absolute certainty.